Fabregas misses friendly over fitness concerns


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Arsene Wenger said last night that he "loved" Cesc Fabregas and did not want him to leave the club for Barcelona after the Arsenal captain dramatically withdrew from a flight to Lisbon for the club's friendly against Benfica today.

Fabregas had been scheduled to fly to Portugal since midweek having trained with the team for the first time since April but at the last minute yesterday a decision was made that he was still not ready to play in the game. Last night Wenger said that Fabregas may not feature in the first game of the Premier League season away to Newcastle on Saturday despite saying the player is fit.

Had Fabregas resumed playing then he would have been required for Arsenal's Champions League qualifier against Udinese on 16 August – and his participation in that game would cup-tie him for the competition for the whole season. The draw yesterday seems to have focussed minds with doubts now over whether Fabregas is in any state of mind to captain the side.

Nevertheless Wenger persisted with his policy of not criticising the player last night when he told a press conference in Portugal that he still had hopes his captain would stay at the club. Barcelona have a proposal to sign him that takes them just short of $35m with add-ons but Wenger remains committed to a £40m valuation of the player.

Wenger said: "He [Fabregas] is just coming back from injury and is not ready to play in a game, but he is not injured. I do not want to speak about the transfer of Fabregas because I have done that three years now in every press conference so I don't think there is any more need to add something.

"I love Fabregas and I want him to stay, that is basically it. Everybody is free to think what they want. We cannot stop people raising questions." He later said: "I don't think Fabregas will be ready to start the season because he has been out for a long time and has had no games."

Also absent from the trip to Portugal was Samir Nasri whose future is far from certain with a £200,000-a-week offer on the table from Manchester City this summer if Arsenal are prepared to negotiate a price. Wenger said the France international had a "muscular problem". He said that Theo Walcott would be fit for next Saturday but claimed that Jack Wilshere was a doubt. Wilshere could still be named in the England squad for Wednesday's friendly against the Netherlands this evening.

Other absentees from the trip to Lisbon include Laurent Koscielny and Abou Diaby while Nicklas Bendtner and Emmanuel Eboué are away resolving their futures. Wenger has a ban for the first leg of the Udinese game and Robin Van Persie and Nasri also have one-match bans outstanding from Uefa.

In March, Wenger was banned from any contact with his team at their next European tie after using what Uefa described as "inappropriate language" towards referee Massimo Busacca after Van Persie was sent off against Barcelona as Arsenal went out of last season's competition.

Arsenal should not fear a trip to Italy, having knocked Milan, Internazionale, Juventus and Roma out of the Champions League in recent years, but taking on Udinese is a dangerous fixture. Wenger will have to sit out the first leg at home for saying Busacca was "embarrassing" and had "killed" the match in Nou Camp after Van Persie received a second yellow for shooting after he had been whistled offside. He will not be allowed to go in the dressing room, tunnel and technical zone, or on the pitch. Nor can he communicate with the team any other way, such as mobile phone. Since it is hard to imagine Wenger following Jose Mourinho's lead, after a similar ban while at Chelsea, and allegedly smuggling himself into the dressing room in a kit skip, Pat Rice will presumably take control.

One player Arsenal will now be pleased Barcelona have signed is Alexis Sanchez, after the Chilean striker's £26m transfer from Udinese. The Italian club have also sold midfielder Gökhan Inler , a long-time Wenger target, to Napoli, and Colombian defender Cristian Zapata to Villarreal. Nevertheless, their owner, Giampaolo Pozzo, has said the team remains strong and is looking forward to facing Arsenal.

"It's a stimulating challenge," Pozzo said. "It's like going to New York for the first time. There is the possibility of going out against a big club, but playing Arsenal is the right reward for such a splendid campaign last term."

Udinese Dangermen

Antonio Di Natale

Veteran striker, now 34, who has scored 57 goals in the last two Serie A seasons, finishing top scorer in each campaign. Former bricklayer who stands 5ft 7in.

Kwadwo Asamoah

Ghanaian midfielder who takes on extra responsibility after Gökhan Inler's departure. Aged 22, he went to last year's World Cup with Ghana.

Samir Handanovic

Slovenian goalkeeper with 50 caps. Penalty-saving expert – which Arsenal will hope is not relevant. Cousin Jasmin Handanovic plays for Rangers' Europa League opposition, Maribor.